Spain and Equatorial Guinea Divergent Memories

Colonial Era: “Beating in the Court of Mongomo”: The painting by Filiberto Obama Nsue, called “Fili”, from 1975, shows guards beating up a Guinean
“Beating in the Court of Mongomo”: The painting by Filiberto Obama Nsue, called “Fili”, from 1975, shows guards beating up a Guinean | Photo (detail): Ramón Sales Encinas

Spain had only one colony in Black Africa: Spanish Guinea, today's Equatorial Guinea. The Spanish hardly remember it at all. But Guinea was painfully shaped by the colonial period.

By Gustau Nerín

Guinea, smaller than Catalonia, without any known great riches and with a population of only 250,000, was marginal to Spain, both economically and militarily as well as emotionally. When Franco won the Civil War in 1939, he dreamed of building a great colonial empire, following in the footsteps of the Catholic monarchs. He thought his alliance with Hitler could be useful to him in expanding the Spanish territories on the African continent. But the Allied victory spelled the end of the colonial dream. Africa continued to play a minor role for Spain, Guinea became insignificant.

Crushed by the colonial power

But this in no way means that the colonial period was without consequences for the Guinean population. The Spanish occupation was also especially palpable because it took place on a small and sparsely populated territory. Moreover, the heavily paternalistic colonial system established by Spain was particularly harsh and exerted intense cultural pressure on the population to adapt. Under Franco's national Catholicism, this pressure took on even more authoritarian features. The colonial state and the Catholic Church challenged the foundations of Guinean society and culture, which were considered incompatible with Christian morality.

Although all processes of colonisation were accompanied by a heavy dose of authoritarianism, the Franco dictatorship further intensified the impacts of colonisation in Africa. The Guineans - like all Africans - became victims of racism, discrimination and economic exploitation, but they were also victims of authoritarianism, fascism and national Catholicism. African religions were persecuted ferociously. It is also telling that not even the colonisers themselves were involved in local administration. The governors of the colony were exclusively military and the “captains” of the regional districts were notorious for their penchant for tyranny: It was always said that “the captain has more to say in his district than Franco in Spain”. Violence was omnipresent, with unremitting prison sentences, forced labour and abuse.

Forgotten by history

In the aftermath of decolonisation, which was disastrous from the Spanish point of view because Spanish citizens had to be evacuated by military action, the Franco regime would have preferred to erase the former colony from history. It became a 'confidential matter': from 1969 to 1977, all information about Guinea, which has been called Equatorial Guinea since independence in 1968, was suppressed. The great silence continued even after the end of censorship; nobody seemed all that proud of this Hispanic colonial adventure. The abandonment of Guinea had left a bitter aftertaste.

And the African country was not to return to Spain's sphere of influence: A brief attempt at re-colonisation failed after the 1979 coup d'état. Spain lost access to Guinea's oil because the country's government left the exploitation of its reserves to US companies. Equatorial Guinea hardly played any role for Spain in foreign policy either. However, Spain was of great importance for Equatorial Guinea, at least until 2000, because a large part of the gross domestic product (GDP) depended on development collaboration with the former colonial power.

Since the end of the 20th century, however, some of the ex-colonists and their descendants have begun to reflect on their colonial adventure in Africa. The “Paradise Lost” of Spanish Guinea has been invoked through internet forums, meetings and a series of publications. At the same time, new historical research on the Spanish colonisation of Guinea has also emerged, which has been far more critical in tone than the memories of the colonisers. However, its scope has been confined to the academic context. It has penetrated into the Spanish population far less successfully than deliberately targeted works of colonial nostalgia, such as the bestseller and eponymous film Palmeras en la nieve (Palm Trees in the Snow).

Recent years, however, have seen some initiatives aimed at bringing Spain's colonial past in Guinea back into collective awareness. These include the documentaries Memoria negra (Black Memory) by Xavier Montanyà and Anunciaron tormenta (A Storm Was Coming) by Javier Fernández Vázquez, and the exhibitions Guinea: el franquismo colonial (iGuinea: Colonial Franco-ism) and Let's bring Blacks home!  This is no easy task, as access to the archives of Franco-ism is still frequently obstructed in Spain. And thus the debate that has recently been launched has so far only reached a small, sensitised minority. At a time of resurgent nationalism, the blessings of Spanish colonialism gain a hearing more readily.

The colonised and their memory

Meanwhile, the efforts to remember and come to terms with the colonial period in Equatorial Guinea itself are still marginal even to this day. It is true that during the dictatorship of Francisco Macías, systematic attempts were made to bring the atrocities of colonisation to light. However, the regime aimed above all at indoctrinating the population. From 1979 onwards, there were only scant attempts at disseminating historical knowledge in Guinea. The Guinean authorities preferred to abandon the past to oblivion and focus on a future supposedly filled with development and prosperity (history instruction in schools was completely neglected). Economic development was paramount, and numerous historical monuments were demolished to make way for new infrastructure.

Only authors such as Francisco Zamora or Donato Ndongo (the author of Las tinieblas de tu memoria negra – The Darknesses of Your Black Memories) or artists like the sculptor Fernando Nguema have illuminated the memories of the Spanish colonial period. Those who devote themselves to this task in Guinea have to contend with a major obstacle: the historical sources (photographs, documents, films, etc.) are for the most part still stored in Spain - a Spain that still partly uses them to cultivate colonial nostalgia with them.